Susin Nielsen on her award-winning novel for young readers


 

First aired on North by Northwest (4/12/12)


When bullying has tragic consequences has been much in the news lately. It's also at the centre of Vancouver author Susin Nielsen's latest book, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, which won the 2012 Governor General's Literary Award for children's text. It's the story of a 13-year-old who is struggling in the aftermath of a tragedy: his older brother has taken a rifle to school, killed the bully who has been tormenting him for years and then killed himself. In spite of its grim subject matter, the book also contains humour, lovable characters, true friendship and many life lessons.

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The idea for the story came to Nielsen when she was reading a book by Wally Lamb. "I was reading The Hour I First Believed, and he had set his protagonist's wife in the very real tragedy of Columbine. And there was just a line in the book that mentioned that one of those killers had a brother," she said. "And for some reason, that just hit me in the gut. And I thought, wow, I've never ever thought about the siblings who are left behind, the family members who are left behind." The thought stayed with her, and she began to wonder, "what would life be like for the younger brother of a boy who was so relentlessly bullied he saw no other way out?"

The tragedy takes its toll in different ways on the parents and on Henry. Henry ends up in therapy because he's wrestling with "his anger, his hatred for his brother, at the same time as he still loves his brother." Nielsen went on to describe this as "the backbone of the book, because this is the journal that his therapist suggests he keep, which he is doing, reluctantly, hence the title. His father, on the surface, seems to be holding it together the best, but of course he's on major anti-depressants and is really barely holding it together and is holding it together for his son. The mom has not fared well, and in fact isn't with the family right now -- she's back with her parents in Picton, Ontario, and in fact has been hospitalized because she's had a complete breakdown."

Henry and his father have left the fictional town on Vancouver Island where the crime took place, and are trying to rebuild their lives in Vancouver. Henry is trying to settle in at a new school, and he's afraid that people will find out about what has happened. As he's putting his life back together, there are some humorous moments, despite the circumstances.

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"I can't write a book without humour," Nielsen said. "And I think the reason there can be humour in this book is that it is told from this 13-year-old boy's perspective. At that age I think that kids tend to be fairly self-centred. And I don't mean that in a bad way, but they have their own particular world view. So Henry never thinks he's being funny. But of course while we read some of what Henry is, saying, doing, thinking, hopefully we're finding some of it funny."

The book also depicts some very painful things, and Nielsen acknowledged it made writing difficult at times. The scene in the book that is the peak of bullying, she said, "was a remarkably easy scene to write, because it was just propelled by so much action. I knew what was going to happen, but I dreaded sitting down to write it." She said added that she "always concerned about going out on a creative limb in terms of the dark subject matter coupled with the humour. And I wasn't sure how people would react to that."

The book came out only a few days after the suicide of B.C. teen Amanda Todd, a timing that Nielsen called "very unfortunately bang on."

Nielsen emphasized that she's not an expert on bullying, but she does hope that her book will have an impact. "Certainly I really hope that this book gets into the schools in a big way, because I think it's a story well told, I think that kids will actually enjoy reading it. But I also hope that, like any book that we love to read, that by walking in somebody else's shoes, even if you're very different from that person," she said, "you might walk away with a sense of compassion for that person, and maybe you'll bring that compassion into school the next day when you see that kid that you used to make fun of. Maybe you'll think twice."






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